Lifesaving Cadet at the Right Place -- for Third Time

COLORADO SPRINGS -- Some air travelers get a case of jangling nerves in the moments just before the plane takes off. Psychologists say this feeling of "cold feet" is nothing more than normal human apprehension about flying.

It's also possible, however, that you have cold feet because you left your shoes on the conveyor belt back at security.

But for James Smith, a senior cadet at the Air Force Academy, there's another feeling that comes in the moments before takeoff, a feeling of concern as he tries to guess which fellow passenger is going to have a seizure right in front of him this time.

It happened six weeks ago. A woman in the row ahead of him on a United Airlines flight from New York to Denver began having convulsions. The two men seated in the row with the woman, along with a dozen or more passengers who quickly noticed the commotion, did exactly what you'd expect people to do in such a situation.

They panicked and screamed a lot.

Smith, 22, rose from his seat, made his way to the aisle and told a flight attendant, "I'm an EMT. I can treat this patient."

And he did. He got an oxygen mask over her mouth, monitored her heart rate and respiration and communicated with the pilot who relayed the medical information to paramedics on the ground.

"It helped," Smith said Tuesday, taking a break from classes in the Arnold Hall dormitory complex at the academy, "that I had done all of this before, on that other flight."

That other flight?

Turns out his Jan. 17 flight from the East Coast, where he had gone for the funeral of his grandmother, was indeed the second time a passenger had the bad luck of lapsing into unconsciousness on an airline flight. But the good luck to do it near Smith.

"Both times I was lucky to have the right training and to be in the right place at the right time," said Smith, who got his emergency medical-technician certificate during his sophomore year at the academy following 140 hours of training and study.

He will graduate from the academy in May and has been accepted into flight school.

There's a downside, of course, to the double whammy: "Now my friends joke that they don't want to fly with me," Smith said. "After the second time it happened, I told a flight attendant that I might reconsider my dream of flying jets. Maybe I should be a doctor."

His first save came a few days before Thanksgiving in 2005, on a JetBlue flight from Denver to JFK in New York. Smith watched as a passenger, a man in his mid-30s, came out of the lavatory at the front of the plane. The man took one step, his eyes rolled back and he went down faster than Britney Spears' chances of doing a shampoo commercial anytime soon.

The man landed nearly at the feet of Smith, who jumped up, got the portable oxygen tank from flight attendants and quickly had the breathing mask on the stricken passenger.

Smith asked the attendants to bring out other medical equipment, and soon he was taking the man's blood pressure and monitoring his heartbeat with a stethoscope. When the plane landed in Denver, Smith turned the victim over to paramedics.

The man, who had a tooth infection and was flying home for dental surgery, recovered.

The second incident - on the United flight - was far more serious.

"The woman was in bad shape," Smith said. "She was in full seizure, flailing and convulsing. She opened her eyes but was not aware of what was going on. She wouldn't let me put the oxygen mask on her. She stared at the mask and kept asking, 'What is this? What is this?"'

Smith eventually got the mask on her. The seizures subsided. The plane landed in New York, and again Smith turned over his patient to waiting paramedics. Smith thinks she might have suffered an embolism or a stroke.

"I'm just glad both of those people had their seizures on the plane and not when they were driving a car," he said.

In a few weeks, Smith is going on spring break. And without giving away all of his plans, if you happen to be on a Denver-to-Acapulco flight that week and aren't feeling well, you might want to look around for a young man in a Hawaiian shirt. And a really short haircut.

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